The Met in Motion

Archive Fever: Who's Afraid of On Demand?

Now that more and more opera is being filmed and broadcast live, there is another kind of archival liveness with which to concern ourselves — that which was live and is now archived. For the Met, this is HD On Demand, the paid subscription video and audio database of live recordings where the footage simulcast as Live in HD goes on to have another life. Ironically, the existence of HD On Demand, despite theoretically giving them constant access to any beloved old-school production (for, of course, a monthly fee), does not mitigate the enmity the youtube-commenter conservative-reactionary opera fan culture feels towards Peter Gelb and his HD Live project. Rather, HD On Demand only further confuses the issue of whether HD Live, as a project and as an accumulation of footage, belongs in the discourse of the archive or that of the marketplace.

On Demand seems like an archive because, well, it is one — a repository of over 650 performances at the Met, including archived HD and radio broadcasts, and iconic historical performances dating back to the 1940’s and 50’s. But HD On Demand is also a subscription service that costs a fairly exorbitant $14.99 a month to access (most college libraries don’t even bother providing access, although Columbia does), and is sold by the Met as kind of a Netflix or Spotify counterpart — there are even little mixtape playlists in with the performances, around themes like “Summer” or “Romance at the Met” (I have reproduced “Summer 2015" in Spotify, although obviously all of the tracks in the HD On Demand version come from Met live performances, none of which are on Spotify).

As such, Met On Demand turns each of those archived performances into a product, packaged and sold with your $14.99 subscription. And products, as we know from David Evans, must continue to offer something new, even within a museum/archive culture such as opera. A practice that would seem to benefit archive culture, the recording and distributing of performances, instead seems to jeopardize it, as its much more nakedly commercial presentation invokes the reality that if every old production is filmed and archived on Met On Demand, then the demand is all the more pressing for new product(ion)s. 

As in so many realms, the fear of the digital in the world of opera is really the fear of acceleration, that the same commercial bottom line that has always driven change and innovation in opera will in the era of digital broadcast and on demand streaming become too explicit a governing factor. Of course, having examined the Lucia cadenza we know that we have nothing to worry about — when the last roof shingle and chiffon gown of every 20th century Zefirelli and Ponselle production has disappeared from the Metropolitan Opera’s storage sub-basements forever, opera will continue to be an archive, for as long as it is performed.

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